I recently wrote about how I was a panelist for EO Accelerator. In that post, I discussed how there are times to share experience, and there are times to give advice. I finished the blog post with the advice I gave the audience that day – Get off your fucking email. I want to take a moment to explain why this direct and intentionally vulgar statement is subtle and critical.

I gave this advice because I used to be this person. I regularly answered emails within minutes of receiving them.

Email me asking to review a proposal due in 30 minutes? I replied within minutes.

Email me asking about plans for the weekend? I replied within minutes.

Email me asking if I have thought much about where our kids will go to college in 5 years? I replied within minutes. OK, maybe that took an hour. We are talking about a life decision. It deserves that extra time.

I would walk out of meetings with my phone in hand and digest emails. There was no time to process the meeting and its takeaways. There was no time to socialize and express gratitude for those in attendance. I thought I was doing well and fully present by not being on email in the meetings.

This behavior led people to email a second time if they had not heard from me within hours of the first email. They would ask if everything was ok. They would ask if I was ok. The answer is no because this is insane. This is majoring in minor things.

“A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.”
– Marcus Aurelius

Before discussing the causes and impact of this behavior, it’s critical to understand the concept around the size of challenges and an organization.

As an entity grows, the challenges become more substantial.  Previously conquered difficulties are later done with ease. Most of us can walk across the room and perform basic mathematics. We engage our muscle memory and do not need to exhaust much mental capacity. The oddity is that very few of us can explain how we do these tasks with ease.

Watch an infant learn to walk or a child learn addition and subtraction. The struggle is visible and palpable.

The same growth of challenges and opportunities occur within organizations. The smaller problems are solved and create growth. As the organization grows, the quantity and volume of opportunities and challenges grow. Each takes longer to solve. For example, a buddy recently closed his 90+-year-old family business and opened a franchise in the same industry. That process took more than 20 months with tremendous challenges and opportunities along the way.

Leaders must grow to tackle these problems. They need to learn new skills and amplify current strengths. The Director of a 50 person company often requires different skills and capabilities to be a Director of a 500 person company. If a leader does not grow, the organization will outgrow him. If the leaders do not grow, the organization will cease growth and probably wither.

Let’s break this down regarding the potential causes of this mindset including what drove this behavior in me.

Procrastination

Procrastination is not inherently bad. It is sometimes the result of needing space for diffuse thinking. In Barbara Oakley’s course “Learning How to Learn“, she discusses how our brains need to step away from problems, especially when learning new skills. This is diffuse thinking mode. It allows our brains to create new connections and solve new problems.

Email can be the opportunity to step away and be effective procrastination. That’s not what I was doing.

I would often jump on email because I did not want to address the significant tasks at hand. They seemed daunting. I was afraid of where to start and being unable to tackle the challenges at hand.

The most likely cause of this feeling was a failure to manage my energy that day. I just didn’t reserve enough horsepower and capabilities to tackle the tasks.

The reality is that almost all work is like math problems. You often have to start and figure it out along the way. Yet, you have to actually start the work.

Self-Worth

I was most guilty of wanting to accomplish something by the end of the day. Considerable challenges often take a long time. I became acutely aware of this as a driving force of being on email during our transaction. It was not because there was a need for instant communication with the lawyers, accountants, and private equity teams.

We began our discussions with private equity in March. Our transaction concluded in November. I worked on the transaction every day. It consumed most of my time. We were merging three companies with similar but different cultures. We were bringing in a CEO. We wanted our PE firm to understand our customers.

Many of those days I felt I had done nothing as I walked out. There was no task crossed out that day. Many of our team probably thought I did nothing the same thing since most did not know about the transaction.

In the midst of a monumental moment, I would jump into email threads with replies. I was often included as a courtesy or by accident. I would reply to a customer would accidentally email me instead of their sales rep.

I later realized I engaged because it feels good to accomplish something. I wanted to walk out with a checkbox receiving a beautiful mark that screams “Done.” This was short-sighted and more about my needs than what our talent and organization needed. It was about my self-worth and feeling I had done something.

Self-Confidence

This is the nasty one. There are multiple ways this could be an issue of self-confidence.

Email is 7% as effective as talking. (We won’t even cover the social impact of other forms of text-heavy and non-verbal communication, such as SMS and Snapchat.) Email does not implicitly convey emotions. It also does not implicitly convey time sensitiveness. These need to be explicitly stated by the sender. In the case of time sensitivity, this would be with phrases such as “This is needed by tomorrow at noon”, “ASAP”, or “Oh, shit. I needed this yesterday.”

How is this related to self-confidence?

Being the person in the know is powerful. Being the person who solves problems is powerful. People express gratitude and encouragement to keep doing this. If the problem is smaller than one’s position, it’s can often be easy because it’s been done a thousand times. It’s a situation of minimal effort with maximum reward.  All of this demonstrates one is valuable and can boost self-confidence.

Yet, it’s also extremely selfish and destructive. It’s the concept of being the one-eyed man on an island of blind people. It tells others that one needs to step in because only she can do it. It tells the team that one can do their jobs with part-time effort and partial knowledge. It might be more subtle to send an email to the team saying, “Hey, I know you do the job full-time and consider yourself an expert, but I know best after studying the situation for a few minutes. It’s due to my infinite intellectual capabilities. All of that says here is what you should do.”

The harder and selfless option is delegation. When one does know more, delegation can be an incredible opportunity for development. Instead of replying to the customer who accidentally emailed, delegate to the sales rep and ensured her manager knows in case it is a development opportunity.

Frankly, I never struggled with this as a reason; however, watching people grow always provided a confidence boost. And that is the long game.

FOMO

Fear of Missing Out.

I struggle to understand this one. Logic overrides my emotions regarding FOMO. Perhaps it is my opinion that Facebook is the curated trophy case of one’s life and Twitter is a steam of people’s current context with minimal character. Perhaps it is the reality that human knowledge is doubling every 12 months. It could soon be every 12 hours.

There is no possible way to know everything that is happening – on email, on Facebook, on SMS. There is no possible way to care about everything that is happening. Regularly checking these is akin to hitting one’s head against a wall. (Pun intended.)

It’s exciting, causes an emotional reaction, and potentially creates brain damage.

Today

“Everybody wants to change the world.
But one thing’s clear
No one ever wants to change themselves.”
– “Do You Really Want It?” by Nothing More

Today, I mainly check my email 3-5 times per day. I never check it as soon as I wake up. I set reminders to check it. That is time for preparing for the day ahead.

All of this was a significant change. It’s made me a better person and a better leader of my family and the organizations in which I lead. I get more done with less distraction.

I changed because of the pain and destruction I was causing. I intend to discuss those in an upcoming post.


Also published on Medium.

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